National Geographic

The Right (and Left) Stuff: Why Countries Drive on Different Sides of the Road

No matter how many times you go to a country like England or Japan, it’s still a little shock to get off a plane and see people driving on the left side of the road. That is, if you’re from the roughly 75 percent of countries that drive on the right side of the road. Wrong in this case is relative, depending on where you’re from.

There are a lot of differences in how individual countries do things, of course. The metric system might be the biggest—the United States is largely on its own in measuring with feet and inches. Currencies and exchange rates are certainly country-specific as well, not to mention languages and customs. But all of those things go back hundreds of years. Automobiles arrived in the 20th century. Why couldn’t the world standardize one system for driving?

Drive on Left Change Reaction

It’s harder than you might think. Despite the modern invention of the car, the side of the road on which we drive has a centuries-old history. The fact that most people are right-handed is the biggest factor contributing to which side of the road people initially chose. Ancient Romans drove chariots with the reins in their dominant right hands to allow them to whip a horse with their left. That way there was little risk of accidentally whipping a passing chariot. But if a warrior needed to do battle from a horse, he could attack a passing opponent on the right with his stronger hand.

For centuries, driving on a certain side of the road was mostly just a custom. There weren’t that many travelers and roads weren’t paved or marked to direct traffic, so it didn’t matter too much. But as more people started driving, some uniformity was needed. One of the biggest influencers of driving direction was Henry Ford, who designed his Model T with the driver on the left. That decision meant cars would have to drive on the road’s right, so that passengers in both the front and back seat could exit the car onto the curb.

Many countries eventually followed. Canada, Italy, and Spain changed to right-side driving in the 1920s. Most of Eastern Europe changed in the ’30s. Scandinavia waited until the 1960s, but its countries eventually changed to the right, too. Things got interesting in colonial countries, especially in Africa. France had long been a right-side country and Britain a left-side country, so their colonies usually followed suit. But when they became independent, many sought to normalize with their neighbors to make things easier. Today, most African countries drive on the right.

Driving on the left means sitting on the right. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff

Driving on the left means sitting on the right. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff

So why do close to 50 countries still drive on the left? The short answer might be stubbornness, which—we should be fair here—is part of the same reason the U.S. still sticks to measuring in inches and feet. But the more nuanced reason is momentum. Cities like London were designed to accommodate left handed driving, so switching would be no simple tweak. Changing the rules of the road is a very complex and expensive thing to do. And the more time that goes by, more cars on the road makes it even harder.

It’s certainly not a debilitating difference to foreign drivers. After a few minutes, your mind tends to adapt. But the most fascinating places to see the confusion might be at border crossings, where drivers are required to immediately change sides. British drivers who take their cars under the English Channel need to swap when they arrive in France. The same is true when crossing borders between China and Pakistan, as well as China and Hong Kong. Where possible, that seems like  a good enough reason to cross a border on foot.


  1. Valeriya
    April 16, 4:43 am

    I’ve read that historically lots of roads were used not only for the army and people caring swords but for peasants who carried heavy bags and stuff. Of course since most of the people are right-handed they carried the stuff on the right side. Therefore it was naturally that when they met someone on the road they would step on the right side to let a person pass (who also might carry something). So right-side was kind of a natural choice for peaceful people.

  2. Noel Ells
    New Zealand
    April 12, 11:27 pm

    Well there is still a lot of ill-informed nonsense out there. John J Duffy makes some interesting points but has still got it confused. There is no evidence that America has a uniform rule before the Revolution, which was 1776-83, six years before the French Revolution. The idea that the French aristocrats kept to the left and “pushed the lower classes to the right” only makes sense if they are going the same way. There is also no record that Napoleon was left-handed, however it does appear that driving on the right spread across Europe to the countries he controlled. But even this is incomplete with exceptions like Italy which did not complete the change until Mussolini.
    There is no evidence that the British influenced Japan. Japan seems to have been influenced by the Samuri sword wielding class, but the keep left rule was not nation-wide in Japan until 1925.

  3. Tanaya
    March 23, 7:05 pm

    Driving with the steering wheel on the right is fascinating to me. I would love to learn to drive that way. I love the diversity of the world. I read all of the comments and i am upset people from other countries call America stuck up. I dont undersand what being stuck up has to do with our steering wheel being on the left. ? ? ?

  4. Ashique Reza
    Los Angeles,CA. USA
    March 19, 8:30 pm

    I think, sitting on the right hand side of a car is logically perfect.

  5. Jason
    March 10, 3:06 pm

    Driving on the left is correct, this is due to our right side being dominant and countries that drive on the left have lower accident rates.

  6. Andy
    March 8, 6:00 pm

    I think we should all drive on the same side weather it be on the left or the right personally I don’t care what side but believe it would be safer and Easyier if it was uniformed world wide.

  7. pasha mohammed
    March 8, 11:13 am

    i would like to know why left driving and when its started and why right driving when its started what difference in left and right please let me know thanks………….

  8. Milad
    March 6, 4:44 pm

    @Charles do you think racism is a clever way of making your point?

  9. charles
    February 27, 1:03 am

    Driving on the left is wrong side,most machine are operated from the right side,it is only because the English wanted to be different,,, and please the crap about swords and all the other stupid things,,,,we don’t use swords today,,,, the,English are a bunch of snobs,,,,,, they are so up them selfs,,,,,

  10. rob
    February 23, 4:00 pm

    As pointed out, the commonality throughout history was to walk on the left, this was because ones sword was kept on the left hand side (as most people are right handed), if you walked on the right, you risked firstly accidentally clashing swords and starting something, you also were at a disadvantage in drawing your sword and fight should you need to, therefore to stop accidental quarrels and give you a chance at protecting yourself, people walked on the left, capable of quickly and efficiently drawing and striking their weapon.
    When Napoleon, who was left handed, was ruling France and conquering countries, in order to give himself the advantages just listed, he made his army march on the right, this gave him an advantage as a left hander.
    The Americans went to the right, partly as a snub to their former British rulers
    Contrary to the article suggesting that the left side is wrong, it is more likely that driving on the right is the more dangerous activity, as most people in the world have a stronger right hand, it is safer when changing gears and reversing (where people place their arm over the passenger seat and look back), that left hand side drivers keep their more dominant right hand on the wheel, for control purposes.

  11. James
    Wyoming, USA
    January 28, 2:44 pm

    I can handle driving on the left, but driving with the steering wheel on the right side….that would be difficult for me I would think.

  12. Michael Nesbitt
    January 27, 10:07 am
  13. Michael Nesbitt
    January 27, 10:00 am
  14. Michael Nesbitt
    January 27, 9:56 am

    Folk should work on their reading comprehension before dismissing what others post. Yes, the author does appear to have an Ameri-centric opinion, but what he writes is not incorrect; readers are simply molding the details to their own understandings.
    I was searching for information on a list of countries that drive on the left, and found this article. Thanks, NG, for a bit of background.

  15. John J Duffy
    January 21, 12:42 pm

    What a complete load of rubbish. The English drive on the correct, left side of the road and the Americans drive on the incorrect, right side of the road.

    Until 1789 all of the world drove on the left because the vast majority of people are right handed which meant you could pass weapon hand to weapon hand. Even primitive tribes passed each other on jungle paths walking on the left.

    The French changed because, pre-revolution, the aristocracy drove on the left and the peasants were forced over to the right. When the revolution came, so as not to be seen as aristocracy, the aristocracts joined the peasants on the right. Napoleon’s conquest of half of Europe introduced much of the driving on the left because it was part of the Napoleonic Code.

    Almost half of Europe still drove on the left until WW2 and Sweden and Iceland only changed in the 1960s. Most of the old British Empire drives on the left. Contrary to what is said above, fewer than half the African countries which used to drive on the left switched to the right and one, Namibia, switched to driving on the left. Japan drives on the left because Herbert Austin, a pre-war major British car manufacturer set up the Japanese car industry. (To this day, Nissan build a Nissan Cedric, named after Herbert Austin’s son).

    Until 1792 all of America drove on the left. Then the Lancaster to Philadelphia Turnpike introduced a rule to drive on the right because ox carts were driven from the left hand side and, by passing left hand to left hand they were able to do so safely. Gradually, all states followed suit. Also contrary to what is said above, Ford built it’s first left hand drive vehicle in 1908, up until then they had all been right hand drive. Cadillac didn’t change until 1916.

    Interestingly, accident statistics are higher in left hand drive countries than in right hand drive countries and when Sweden and Iceland switched, after an initial drop due to people driving more cautiously, the accident rate rose quite noticeably. The reason behind this is right eye dominance along with right dexterity. Not as many many people are right eye dominant (about two thirds) compared with being right handed but it is enough to make a significant difference when observing oncoming traffic.

    Not only is driving on the left historically correct but it is also safer. Interestingly, if there hadn’t been a French revolution then, maybe, the U.S. would be the only country in the world driving on the right (but then, if there hadn’t been a French revolution then, without French help, America would not have won the War of Independence and would be driving on the left anyway).

  16. Keith Ray
    October 30, 2013, 6:52 pm

    The comment ‘so why do 60 countries still drive on the left seems to imply that driving on the right is the correct and natural thing to do, What pompous arrogance! Just because the US drives on the wrong side of the road doesn’t mean it is correct! Why does the US still drive on the right??

  17. tony
    October 18, 2013, 12:07 pm

    Around the time of reconstruction in Paris at the time when the Arc De Triumph and surrounding streets were built, to keep order, it was decided to drive on the right. The Brits thought this was a great idea but, so as not to be seen as copycats, decided to drive on the left.

  18. Krishnakumar K A
    October 12, 2013, 11:08 pm

    You are so obsessed with your left hand steering cars. I want to why left hand steering cars are not made with left leg break and accelerator?

  19. Barbara Dunfee
    October 11, 2013, 4:16 pm

    A bit more complex than that, but Mr. Simpson has the beginnings of it.

  20. Postal Vehicles
    Toronto, Canada
    October 2, 2013, 4:05 pm

    I think you said it right when you mentioned momentum. Many countries were designed around a left side traffic system and the switch may cause more grief than relief.

    Some countries have both left and right hand drive vehicles mixed into a single traffic system.

  21. Krishnakumar K A
    October 1, 2013, 10:51 pm

    Actually controlling the steering with right hand and changing the gear shift with left hand is easier and safer. I read in a research report that accidents are lesser in countries where in vehicles steering is on right side. Because majority of people in world are right handers, hence keeping steering in right side is logically right. Remember Henry Ford and Napoleon are left handers, both of them implemented right side traffic (left side steering). Many countries follow USA not only in driving but also in lifestyle, its nothing but due to enslaved mentality towards USA as its one of the world power. If you remember, till 2000 mid USA had been acting as “world police” and “god father” to many countries. So many powerless countries followed them. That increased the number of left steering countries.

  22. Jonathan Davids
    August 28, 2013, 10:43 pm

    “So why do close to 50 countries still drive on the left? The short answer might be stubbornness”…is it really stubbornness to throw away a standard that worked well for centuries even before cars were around to adopt a US standard? Would it be similar stubbornness not to adopt the spelling “color” instead of “colour”? Or is it stubbornness not to stick with an existing established standard?

    Unfortunate to see the subjectivity enter into this article which shows a somewhat subjective point of view and aimed at a US audience – ‘my way is the right way’ type of view, which unfortunately doesn’t help with building positive opinions of Americans.

    On the subject at hand, I don’t care either way, as long as people learn to drive properly, if you can and you have a brain then you can make the switch quickly to driving either side. What I think is more difficult is knowing the differences in road laws between countries and in some nations between territories or states. I agree though it would be simpler to all if everything was the same everywhere…but it doesn’t mean it has to be…variation can be nice and makes the world a more interesting place.

  23. Damien Sanders
    August 23, 2013, 10:22 am

    Cars cross the English channel either by ferry or train, no one drives under it, so the switching of sides on the road implied by the article never happens. The French adopted driving on the right during their first Revolution, quite possibly because it was the opposite to what the English did. Interesting that Ford was trying to minimise idiots firing guns from their cars. The civilised world uses gun controls.

  24. Pandy Legend
    August 11, 2013, 2:21 pm

    @Minky Dave
    I think you missed something in geography class

  25. Minky Dave the Giant
    July 5, 2013, 11:29 am

    The border between China and Pakistan? Bloody hell, did I miss something on the news?!

  26. Richard Nyarko
    June 23, 2013, 7:03 am

    We drive now on the right in my country. I believe those who facilitated the change did the right thing for it would have been odd for those of us who are taxi drivers to collect the fares with our left hands. Using the left hand to give or collect an item is traditionally forbidden.

  27. D. J. Hawkins
    June 11, 2013, 8:41 pm

    If my own experience is any guide, you can spot the American on the road in Ireland or Britain rather easily; when he wants to make a turn, the windshield wipers come on!

  28. Justin
    June 4, 2013, 3:44 pm

    I believe that Mr. Henry Ford introduced having the driver sit on the left side to help curtail driving a car with a gun and shooting.

  29. Fred Hopkins
    June 2, 2013, 4:47 pm

    Having come from the UK, I will put another reason for the driver sitting on the left. It is easier to change gear for a right handed person.
    Another side point – why do you mount a horse on it’s left side?
    Because your sword is on your left and it gets in the way when mounting on the right.

  30. Phil Simpson
    May 31, 2013, 5:41 pm

    In centuries past people would alway pass each other keeping their sword hands nearest the oncoming strangers. It became common practice everywhere to pass on the left or you could end up dead. Countries don’t come more traditional than Japan or the UK so they never changed along with a few others… passing to the right is definitely a newer way of thinking.